La Dolce Vita in the Polish York
Surprises, surprises, and more surprises. “Travel is fatal to prejudice,” Samuel Clemens once wrote, and, while good ol’ Sam had broader topics in mind, his quote is applicable to more mundane matters. My image of Poland, for instance. Previous to coming here, the word Poland brought to mind:
- Chicago football in the 70s
- boiled turnip and cabbage stew
- grey skies, grey cities
…and, that’s about it. Of course, I knew better. I had read about Poland, its long, rich, and often tortured history. I knew it had great cities that had been cultural capitals, and that these cities had spawned many great minds of history — Copernicus rewrote the galactic map. Poles are right up there with the Germans and Italians in the annals of great music, from Chopin to Ray Manzarek. Hell, even the inventor of the Q-Tip was Polish. So why was I expecting a dull country full of grumpy, sullen fatalists?
Well, whatever the reasons, I am happy to report that I was wrong about everything (except the sausage; God but they love their sausage). Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Kraków, quite possibly the best city to live in, ever:
This place is gorgeous. Kraków’s main square is Europe’s finest — in fact the entire city core is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s Poland’s major college town, and as such it’s lively, fun, and cheap. It bristles with energy, confidence, and hope.
And the food is really really good here. The absurdity of my preconceptions loomed over me at every corner.
Now, the attentive among you may have noticed I referred to Kraków as “the Polish York”. That’s not entirely accurate, as Kraków as a whole is much bigger than York, but there are striking similarities nonetheless: Like with York, there is a ton of history here, right under your feet. Kraków recently opened a stunning underground museum that was made by excavating, in situ, the main square. If the 14th-century roadbed doesn’t float your boat, maybe the 13th-century market stalls will, or the 12th-century graves (complete with anti-vampire burial practices). Like York, the city center is flat, compact, immensely accessible on foot, and packed with pubs and eateries. And like York, one gets the immediate impression that yes, one could live here. One should live here. There are no streets with such spendiferously goofy names as York’s “Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate”, but still. It’s the cat’s meow.
First order of business: prepare for the day.
Here we are, taking care of business. No, we’re not just enjoying $3 beers while relaxing in a cool cellar cafe/bar right off the main drag stocked with books in many different languages. We’re not just chatting with fellow travelers from around the world who, like us, have been charmed by Kraków. Because you see, we’re in a freakin’ laundromat. Doing our laundry.
Hard work over, now it’s time for some local flavor. We book back to the main square for the afternoon Hejnał Mariacki. According to legend, back in 1241, the Tatars (remember them?) sacked Kraków. A sentry spotted the dawn attack and started to sound the alarm by blowing a rally cry with his bugle. The city gates were closed in time and hence the attack was thwarted; however the bugler was shot through the throat with an arrow, and died. To commemorate this, once an hour on the hour (round the clock) a bugler appears at the window of the St. Mary’s church tower and starts playing his tune, only to abruptly cut off. It’s weird and cute and funny and completely lovable all at the same time.
Time to visit Schindler’s museum and the old Jewish Quarter. We’re gonna have to stock up on vitamin B for this.
Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Kraków, was for hundreds of years a pretty mellow place. Poles and Jews coexisted pretty nicely (especially by old-timey European standards) until the Nazis showed up. You can imagine what happened next. Or you could re-watch Schindler’s List, which took place in the area (and was filmed here, as well). The Jews were driven out to a ghetto a few miles away, and the quarter was left to rot. Even the buildings were appalled.
Just on the other side of Kazimierz, on the site of Schindler’s factory, now sits one of Europe’s best, most innovative, and well-executed museums. It tells the story of how Kraków and its inhabitants — all of them — fared under the Nazi boot.
I could go on for hours about this place, but I won’t. I’ll just leave it at this:
- It is insanely great
- You must go there
I’d like to stay longer. Much, much longer. But we’re off to Hungary, and the brilliant, mad capital of the former Austro-Hungarian empire: Budapest. Till next time, keep on truckin’.